The Case for Anti-Intellectualism


It’s been two weeks but I have yet to do my write-ups on the 2017 Tucson Festival of Books, mostly because I have been lazy.  And because spring is here and it’s been time to get outside start on gardening and what not.  But mostly laziness.

The panels were good and I enjoyed them.  I will get a summary up on the discussion.  However, I did have a side incident which left me confused.

On Day 2 (Sunday, 12 Mar), I was standing in line for the first of several panels.  I wasn’t really thinking about anything, just kind of enjoying the cool Tucson morning before the afternoon heat set in.  Then this little guy behind me broke my reverie by asking questions.

I paraphrase below, mostly because I don’t recall every single word, but the gist is correct.  The opening exchange was fine, going something like this:

>>Him:  So do you know anything about this panel?

Me:  Hmm?  Well it’s [description of panel].

>>Him:  Are they going to talk about things other than science-fiction?  I hope the lessons are more generic than that.

Me:  Well, maybe. I mean there are some universal publishing lessons involved.

>>Him:  Do you know anything about [author, and member of the upcoming panel]?  I understand he’s done some screenplays.

Me:  He was on a panel I saw yesterday and he mentioned doing [popular movie from 20 years ago].

>>Him:  Cool.

Okay, so far, so good, right?  Now it takes a turn into the bizarre.

>>Him:  I sat through a screenwriting panel this morning.  There was one good guy on it and two locals.  It wasn’t helpful.

Me:  No good, eh?

>>Him:  Yeah the locals were awful.  (He adopts a condescending grin.)  Tusconians, am I right?

Me:  I’m not following you.

>>Him:  Oh just this town.  Full of uneducated people.  Most of the out-of-staters agree.

At this point, I am slightly annoyed.  My parents and both of my sisters and their respective families live in Tucson.  Now, I have a generally low opinion of people everywhere and it really has nothing to do with geography or education, but more along the lines of people’s natural arrogance and self-righteousness–and I am getting waves of it from this guy.

Me:  Well, people are bad everywhere I guess.

>>Him:  You have to admit the education level and ignorance of people here is pretty amazing.

Me:  Are you from here?

>>Him (shocked that I would say such a thing):  No, I am from [some small city in Illinois].  But I see a lot of things there that are the same here.  I am just here at the university where I can be with smart people.

Me:  Smart people aren’t always the answer.  Our last ten presidents are college-educated and look where that’s gotten us.

>>Him (getting upset):  Well, I meant graduate level education.

Me:  What does that have to do with anything?

And this part is forever etched in my mind, so it is a direct quote:

>>Him: Well, you’re just showing your anti-intellectualism.  Good luck with that.

He turned his back on me and started fiddling with his phone.

Let’s set aside that it takes a particular breed of jerkass to engage someone you don’t know in conversation, find out they think different than you, then insult them and turn your back on them.  He’s lucky I’m not a lunatic.

(Muse: ?)

Okay, a complete lunatic.

I was completely taken aback by his audacity–so much so that I could only stammer out that I had a graduate level degree and I knew what I was talking about.  He chose to ignore me.  About then, the doors opened and they started seating people for the panel.

In retrospect, I had a whole bunch of things I wish I had said to him.  In retro-retrospect, I am glad I didn’t waste my time.

What drives someone to walk around with a diploma-sized chip on their shoulder, judging other people based on the size of their education?  Arrogance, certainly.  Inflated self-esteem would be another.  But I think also insecurity.

This guy was nothing to look at.  Short.  Bald.  A crop of nose hair the size of the Amazon.  Knowing my wife’s tastes, she would have called him ugly.  Was it Napoleon syndrome?  Sneering down his nose at his “lessers” because of some accolade displayed by a group of other people?  Is that a way for him to displace his self-doubt about his own aspects, physical or otherwise?

Dirty secret:  I do have a Master’s Degree, in atmospheric physics.  It was a lot of work but at no time did I ever think that inherently made me “better” than anyone else.  I didn’t elevate myself to another plane simply because a group of people decided that I was cool enough to join their club–which is frankly all advanced degrees are.  You pay your dues and deference to your committee and they decide to let you in.  And if you think I am wrong, I can point to lot of individuals with advanced degrees that are frankly dumb as a bag of bowling balls.  They just kow-towed to the right ideologies.

I will take two examples I know personally.  They both have doctorates from the same discipline.  One is a genuine good person.  That person is a little arrogant but I think that is outgrowth from their abundance of self-confidence (they were the same way, or worse, when they were younger and less educated).  They are also a very funny, easy-going person–moreso than me, for sure–who judges people by how they act, not how many initials are after their names.

At the other end of the extreme is someone who while very book smart, has no common sense, and is currently in some hot water for ethics violations in their field–violations that a first year entrant in the field would know well enough to steer around.  Smart but not very bright, if you catch my drift.

I am not well versed in sociocultural evolution but I do believe that a lot of human behavior can be traced to our primate roots.  As I have said before, we’re not fallen angels but risen apes.  Cutthroat methods of “getting ahead” via education or economics is the modern equivalent of our ancestors smashing each other in the head with an antelope thighbone.  So in some sense, I understand the guy’s arrogance.  He achieved, or is achieving, and naturally feels superior to those that haven’t.

At the same time, we aren’t apes any more.  Western society does embrace the idea of equality and I grew up steeped in that idea.  It is hard to conceive of someone being “less” than me because they are less educated.  In my travels, I have met so many honest, hard-working people that lack a post-high school education.  These people are the ones who prop up our society.  Some people will probably pooh-pooh me, stating that our society does stratify into classes and education plays into that, yadda yadda yadda.  Okay, that’s true.  So why perpetuate it?  Why play into it?  Why not strike your own personal blow and treat people as human, even if they have less than you?  Why not show your disdain to those who do?

So to have some smarmy little weasel stand in front of me, acting as though his education made him something special…yeah, it pushed my buttons.  He wasn’t special.  He could have disappeared off the planet and the universe would have hummed on, unperturbed.

(Muse:  You fantasized about making him disappear, didn’t you?)

You know me too well.  Sometimes we would do well to get in touch with our ape roots.  He’s lucky I have a check on my berserker heritage (mostly) and didn’t have a thighbone handy.

I am not against education (in principle; there is a ton of indoctrination passed off as education.)  But neither do I believe it is a guarantee of having a high-quality person on your hands.  So if I judging individuals based on their own merits, rather than paying homage to their “credentials” makes me an anti-intellectual, then so be it.

I prefer to think of myself as anti-pretentious-asshole.


One thought on “The Case for Anti-Intellectualism

  1. Good post. It highlights the cultural divide that is challenging our democracies. You were not being anti-intellectual and this guy seems like he was being a classist a-hole. Education (knowledge) is not the same as intelligence, and neither are the same as wisdom, the greater virtue of the three. Wisdom tells us that all people, regardless of education, are worthy of respect and dignity according to their character.
    There is a dangerous strain of anti-intellectualism out there, however, the kind that believes education is the opposite of wisdom, that the more we learn the less we know, that all of life’s answers are contained in a preacher’s interpretation of a Bronze Age anthology of myths and proverbs. It is resentful and openly hostile towards expertise, science and the humanities, big words, complex, abstract or nuanced thought. This is not a character trait worthy of respect.


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